Testing Testing

Indiana students outscore U.S. peers on national science test, but many still struggle

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

Indiana students posted slightly higher scores in 2015 on an important national science exam — both compared to their peers across the country and to Indiana students who last took the test in 2009.

On average, fourth- and eighth-graders across the country posted 4-point gains on the 300-point National Assessment of Educational Progress test, administered to a sample of students in most states last year.

Indiana fourth-graders did a bit better on the 2015 NAEP science test compared to the fourth-graders who took it in 2009, scoring six points higher. Last year’s fourth graders also scored, on average, six points higher than the their peers in other states.

Indiana eighth-graders also scored higher than they did in 2009, up four points to 156 and besting the national average of 153.

Read: Indiana rank continues to rise on the national NAEP test in reading and math

Despite the improvement, most Indiana students who took the test still did not meet the exam’s key “proficiency” standard in science, with just 42 percent of fourth-graders and 36 percent of eighth-graders passing that threshold.

High standards have long been characteristic of NAEP, which calls itself the “nation’s report card” because it has long been the only way to compare students across states. Recently, states have cited gaps between NAEP scores and scores on their own tests to toughen their academic standards and exams.

The latest scores come after many states have had new reading and math standards in place and after years of renewed attention to science instruction. Schools and districts across the country have invested in what they are calling STEM education, an acronym that describes a new approach to incorporating science, technology, engineering, and math into the school day.

The U.S. Department of Education has encouraged the shift, launching a program to recruit science teachers and expand computer science instruction.

“The data themselves don’t tell us why we’ve seen these improvements, but we do think investments we’ve made over the past eight years have made a difference,” Education Secretary John King said.

The next phase, King said, is for high schools to add more advanced science and math courses — something that the new federal education law earmarks extra funding for.

“We know from our civil rights data that there many students who attend high schools where you can’t even take Algebra II or physics,” he said.

Some Indiana educators and policymakers have long advocated for giving students expanded access to science, math and applied-science classes.

For example, Indianapolis Public Schools plans to dramatically expand its partnership with Project Lead The Way next year thanks to a $250,000 grant from American Structure Point, an Indianapolis-based engineering firm. Project Lead The Way is an Indianapolis-based nonprofit that develops curriculum for applied science and project-based classes.

“The STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) emphasis is really the 21st century curriculum,” said Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett at an event announcing the grant earlier this year. “This kind of emphasis needs to be made all over Marion County.”

Test tweaks

Tennessee will halve science and social studies tests for its youngest students

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen announced Wednesday plans to slim down science and social studies assessments for third- and fourth-graders as she seeks to respond to complaints of over-testing in Tennessee.

McQueen has been mulling over that option since meeting last summer with her testing task force. The State Department of Education received more public feedback on testing during the last eight months while developing the state’s new plan for its schools in response to a new federal education law.

Tennessee already has eliminated a state test for eighth- and tenth-graders, as well as shortened TNReady, the state’s end-of-year tests for math and reading.

It’s uncertain just how significant the latest reductions are, since McQueen also said that some “components” would be added to English tests in those grades.  

And the trimming, while significant, falls short of a suggestion to eliminate the tests altogether. Federal law does not require tests in science and social studies for those grades, like it does for math and English.

Parents and educators have become increasingly vocal about the amount of testing students are undergoing. The average Tennessee third-grader, for instance, currently spends more than 11 hours taking end-of-course tests in math, English, social studies and science. That doesn’t include practice tests and screeners through the state’s 3-year-old intervention program.

McQueen noted that more changes could be on the horizon. Her testing task force has also considered eliminating or reducing TNReady for 11th-graders because they already are required to take the ACT college-entrance exam. “We will continue to evaluate all of our options for streamlining assessments in the coming years, including in the 11th grade,” she wrote in a blog post.

McQueen also announced that the state is tweaking its schools plan to reduce the role that chronic absenteeism will play in school evaluation scores.

The federal Every Student Succeeds Act requires states to evaluate schools based off of a measure that’s not directly tied to test scores. Tennessee officials have selected chronic absenteeism, which is defined as missing 10 percent of school days for any reason, including absences or suspension. McQueen said the measure will be changed to count for 10 percent of a school’s final grade, down from 20 percent for K-8 schools and 15 percent for high schools.

Some local district officials had raised concerns that absenteeism was out of the control of schools.

early adopters

Here are the 25 districts committing to taking TNReady online this spring

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

One year after Tennessee’s first attempt at online testing fizzled, 25 out of 140 Tennessee school districts have signed up to try again.

About 130 districts were eligible to test online this year.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said Thursday the number is what she expected as districts prepare to administer the state’s TNReady assessment in April.

Although all districts will make the switch to online testing by 2019 for middle and high school students, they had the option to forge ahead this year with their oldest students.

The Department of Education is staggering its transition to online testing — a lesson learned last year when most of the state tried to do it all at once and the online platform buckled on the first day. As a result, the department fired its testing company, derailing the state’s assessment program, and later hired  Questar as its new test maker.

Districts piloted Questar’s online platform last fall, and had until Wednesday to decide whether to forge ahead with online testing for their high school students this spring or opt for paper-and-pencil tests.

McQueen announced the state’s new game plan for TNReady testing in January and said she is confident that the new platform will work.

While this year was optional for high schools, all high schools will participate in 2018. Middle and elementary schools will make the switch in 2019, though districts will have the option of administering the test on paper to its youngest students.

Districts opting in this spring are:

  • Alvin C. York Institute
  • Bedford County
  • Bledsoe County
  • Blount County
  • Bristol City
  • Campbell County
  • Cannon County
  • Cheatham County
  • Clay County
  • Cocke County
  • Coffee County
  • Cumberland County
  • Grundy County
  • Hamilton County
  • Hancock County
  • Knox County
  • Jackson-Madison County
  • Moore County
  • Morgan County
  • Putnam County
  • Scott County
  • Sullivan County
  • Trousdale County
  • Washington County
  • Williamson County